Gross Anatomy

May 19, 2020

grossanatomyIf the title Gross Anatomy makes this new college film sound vaguely like Animal House, more’s the pity. Actually, the title refers to the most gruesome class in the lives of a group of medical students, in which they spend the better part of a year working with an authentic human cadaver.

If the film recalls any previous movie, it is The Paper Chase, which described the various madnesses of law school. Gross Anatomy is similarly consumed with the apparent impossibility of surviving the first year of medical school: the endless studying, the intense pressure to perform, and the daily confrontation with a cadaver.

As a rehash of some familiar school-is-hell themes, Gross Anatomy doesn’t add much new to the genre. Around the edges, however, director Thom Eberhardt (Without a Clue) finds a few fresh elements for the mix.

He’s helped by a watchable cast: Matthew Modine is the jaunty student who breezes in and infuriates his fellow students by never seeming to study much; Daphne Zuniga is his lab partner (and object of his much-deferred desire) who resists his entreaties in favor of study; Todd Field and John Scott Clough are driven students who share anatomy class with Modine; and Christine Lahti, the superb actress from Housekeeping, plays a professor who has Modine’s number.

The major sticking-point is Lahti’s frustration with Modine’s attitude. He’s obviously gifted, but he’s a major goof-off; when Lahti asks him what he would say to a patient whom he diagnoses as terminally ill, he suggests, “Goodbye?” This struggle is traditional, but it’s so divertingly acted that it’s easy to take. The same can be said for the whole movie.

The 26-year-old leading lady of Gross Anatomy, Daphne Zuniga, was in the area recently for interviews. Zuniga, who first came to attention with her winning performance in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, has also played in films as disparate as The Fly II and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs.

She, too, has reservations about the title. “I saw the title and said, “‘Next, please,'” she says. “I hated it from the beginning.” Despite name-the-movie contests during filming, and wide lobbying of friends and relatives, no substitute was found.

Probably because of her delicate good looks, Zuniga has been cast in some snooty roles: the upper-class student in The Sure Thing, even the Druish princess in Spaceballs (which inspired the immortal line, “Funny, you don’t look Druish”).

Zuniga wanted this character to be different: “I didn’t want her to be this ice princess who slowly melts. I had to ask the director to really watch me on that, to make sure that her reactions to things were warmer than I might have made them at first.” Such an impulse drove Zuniga to make Last Rites, a steamy thriller that went straight to video and which she now disowns.

Part of the research process for the actors was visiting a real gross human anatomy lab. Real gross. Zuniga says she looked at the ceiling until she finally had to drop her eyes and gaze upon the cadavers. “It was toward the end of the term,” she says, “and the students were handling organs just like fruit in a grocery store. I could only last a half an hour. It was eerie. Very eerie.”

First published in The Herald, October 20, 1989

I am running some review/interviews this week and, well, it was Daphne Zuniga’s turn. She’s still working hard, by the way. Director Eberhardt made Night of the Comet and The Night Before, and doesn’t seem to have many credits in the last dozen years. It’s odd how certain things stay in your mind – Modine’s glib “Goodbye” has popped into my head from time to time, as a measure of shallowness. The Paper Chase reference reminds me that there was a time when that movie was pretty well-known; curious how it has fallen out of the collective imagination.